Friday, December 15, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Upton brothers enter Braves' new world

LAKE BUENA VISTA — Manny Upton watches his two sons take turns blasting baseballs into the bright-blue sky Monday afternoon, and the fantasy finally starts to seem real.

B.J., 28, and Justin, 25, the Braves' star siblings, are teammates for the first time since they were teenagers. And their friendly competition in batting practice is apparently a lot less lopsided than their one-on-one childhood battles in the front yard of their Chesapeake, Va., home.

"B.J. used to beat up on Justin," says Manny, a mortage banker and college basketball referee. "Justin wouldn't play unless he hit first, because if he didn't hit first, he'd probably never hit playing with B.J."

The Uptons are expected to be a big hit together in Atlanta, which signed B.J. — the former long-time Rays centerfielder — to a five-year, $75 million deal in November, then acquired Justin two months later in a blockbuster seven-player deal with Arizona.

B.J. said it still hasn't sunk in that he's no longer with the Rays, the only organization he had ever known, especially when making the one-hour commute to work from his Tampa home.

But as B.J. gets used to his familiar No. 2 being stitched in a much darker shade of blue, it's hard to have any regrets when his little brother is by his side in an adjacent locker of a championship-caliber clubhouse.

"It's something we've dreamed about," B.J. said. "It was far-fetched it would happen this early in our careers, but it's here. And we're having fun with it."

The sibling rivalry has become one of spring training's most sentimental and saturated storylines, with national writers, TV networks and photographers flocking to the team's complex at ESPN's Wide World of Sports to capture their every move. Fans follow the Uptons to the back fields, where they put on a show in must-see batting practice sessions with All-Star rightfielder Jason Heyward. "B.J. has already conceded to me and Jason," Justin deadpanned. "He said, 'I'm not going to try to hit homers with you guys.' "

Otherwise, B.J. isn't taking it easy on Justin, ribbing him Friday after he was the last to arrive for a team meeting.

"It seems like B.J. gets all over Justin all the time," said outfielder Reed Johnson, whose locker is next to the brothers. "And the younger brother keeps his mouth shut and takes it."

Justin said they've always had different personalities, so it's good that adjoining lockers is the lone real estate they'll be sharing.

"(The Braves) asked us a few weeks ago if we'd be able to tolerate each other all spring," Justin said, smiling. "We're trying it out, but it may not last to the season."

But as much as the brothers butt heads throughout their lives, they've also pushed each other, and expect to do the same while in the same lineup.

"I think Justin having a big brother made him work harder," Manny said. "B.J. never let up on him. From the time he was 5, B.J. wouldn't take it easy, wouldn't give him extra outs, wouldn't give him nothing. Consequently, Justin worked harder and made him a better player."

With the age difference, the only time they were on the same team was in their teens, when they were both infielders on a fall league travel club that included future big-leaguers David Wright, Mark Reynolds and Ryan Zimmerman.

"I just never played," Justin said. "They were way more advanced. I was on the back burners at that point."

Both blossomed into touted prospects, with B.J. going No. 2 in 2002 and Justin the top pick in 2005. B.J. became a big part of Tampa Bay's transformation from the Devil Rays days, leading them to three playoff berths, including the 2008 World Series. Justin, also boasting a rare blend of speed and power, made two All-Star teams in Arizona. Their parents zig-zagged the country, making at least a trip a month to see their boys.

"We're on Southwest's preferred list," Manny quipped.

The brothers faced each other for one interleague series at Tropicana Field in 2010 and kept track of each other's success through SportsCenter highlights; they fittingly hit their 100th career homer the same night in August. Justin said the two hoped — at some point before they retired — they could team up.

The stars aligned Jan. 24, when Justin, the subject of trade rumors the past two seasons, was sent to Atlanta in a seven-player deal. Manny and his wife, Yvonne, a retired teacher, were visiting Justin's Scottsdale, Ariz., home when Justin woke them up with the news. B.J. didn't find out until the next morning.

"At first, I didn't want to believe it, but I didn't think he'd pull my leg at 1 in the morning," Manny said.

Said Yvonne: "We were all just in shock. Things like that just don't happen, especially at this part of their careers."

There have been around 100 sets of brothers to play together in major-league history, from the Aarons to the Ripkens to the Alomars, Niekros, Perrys and Deans. But it's very rare for two star siblings to join forces during their prime.

"They're two big-time major-league players," MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds said. "This isn't Hank Aaron and Tommy Aaron where Hank is going to hit 50 and Tom hit five, or Cal and Billy (Ripken). These are two bona-fide star players that have made their own name. It's going to be fun for everyone."

That especially includes Atlanta, which ex-Brave Ron Gant says now has an outfield featuring three players with the potential to hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs. Manager Fredi Gonzalez believes that, defensively, they're covered "all the way to the stands," though Justin — an inexperienced leftfielder — admits he'll let B.J. "have everything he can get."

"It's almost the 'Dream Team' outfield," Johnson said.

As much fun as the sibling story is, B.J. said he'd rather the focus be on the team. The real dream, is for them to win a World Series — together.

"That," Manny said, "would be special."

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]

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